After playing for clubs in five different countries over a 15-year period, Axel Witsel’s thoughts are starting to turn towards home.
“I travel a lot,” Witsel, now in his third season with German giant Borussia Dortmund, tells CNN Sport as he reflects on his globetrotting career in football.
“I think when I finish football, I will live in Belgium because it’s my country. Liège is my city, it’s where I was born; I have my family, my friends, so I think this is the place I will be.”
Witsel turns 33 at the start of next year. He aspires to win as many titles as he can before hanging up his boots but, in the meantime, has also been mulling his retirement plans.
Alongside teammates from the Belgium national team, the midfielder is currently taking his coaching license — something he wants to “have in my pocket” for the future — and also expresses interest in being the sporting director of a club.
“Of course, for sure, I will stay in the football world,” says Witsel.
The immediate future is less certain, with Witsel in the last year of his contract with Dortmund. His current priority is to help the club win a first Bundesliga title since 2012 and end rival Bayern Munich’s run of winning the past nine championships.
“I don’t know what will happen next,” he says. “I’m more focused on the present, on now, because it’s what matters. Then we will see in the future … I think it’s better to take it game after game.”
Witsel’s versatility means he is a crucial cog in a team’s attack and defense, able to retrieve possession as well as he can kick-start breaks with pin-point passes; his most valuable attribute, he once said, is his ability to shield the ball and retain possession.
Before Dortmund, Witsel played for Standard Liège in Belgium, Benfica in Portugal, and Zenit Saint Petersburg in Russia, winning 10 domestic trophies over a period of 10 years.
From there, he took up a lucrative contract in China with Tianjin Quanjian, later renamed to Tianjin Tianhai — a move that necessitated maintaining his international caliber while playing at a lower standard than he was used to in Europe.
“When you go to China you can say, ‘OK, I’ve got my money and I’m relaxed and I don’t have any more purpose.’ Or you stay fit [and] you work more after training, so that’s what I did,” says Witsel.
“I don’t need to hide why I was in China, everybody knows why I was there. But then, every training, I trained individually because I wanted to stay in the national team, to stay competitive, to play at the  World Cup.
“And I did really good … it’s not impossible to go to a weaker championship to stay in the national team and play a big tournament.”
Brazilian midfielder Oscar became one of the headline names to move from Europe to the Chinese Super League when he left Chelsea for Shanghai Port, then called Shanghai SIPG, five years ago, while Witsel’s Belgium teammate Yannick Carrasco returned to Atlético Madrid last year following a stint with Dalian Professional.
Today, however, the league attracts fewer star players and teams have struggled financially. Witsel’s old club, Tianjin Tianhai, declared bankruptcy and folded in 2020, and earlier this year, reigning champion Jiangsu FC ceased operations just three months after winning the league title.
As for Witsel, he always knew that the future of his club career would be in Europe.
“A lot of players when they go there [China] … I will not say it’s like they are on holiday, they don’t have any more purpose or objective,” he says.
“I played there for one year and a half. But in my head, I wanted to come back to Europe to play at a high level. So that’s why after 2018, after the World Cup, I decided to join Dortmund.”
Mentoring at Dortmund
At Dortmund, Witsel is an experienced head within one of the most youthful, exciting teams in Europe. Part of the club’s strategy is to develop the world’s best young players before selling them on for high transfer fees.
Recent graduates of Dortmund’s production line of talent include Manchester United’s Jadon Sancho and Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, while 19-year-old Giovanni Reyna and 18-year-old Jude Bellingham are both first team regulars for Dortmund.
It’s down to the senior players to offer guidance and advice.
“We have Marco Reus, Mats Hummels also. We are, I don’t like to say the oldest players, but the most experienced players. We are here to help the boys … on the pitch, off the pitch,” says Witsel.
He adds: “When you are young, you don’t need to think too much. You just need to play your game, enjoy it. That’s why we play football — because we love the game.”
Another young talent in Dortmund’s ranks is free-scoring forward Erling Haaland, who has quickly made his mark in Germany with 50 goals in his first 50 league games.
“I think he can be like (Robert) Lewandowski, (Karim) Benzema, he can be the best striker in the world,” Witsel says of his teammate.
“Of course, he still has to improve because he’s young, but he already has a lot of quality. All the time, normally when he plays, he scores a lot of goals, so what he’s doing now at 21, it’s already amazing.
“He always wants to win (and) to improve. I think this is his mentality and you will never change Erling — he is a winner, even in training, and I think this is one of his strengths to what he’s doing now.”
Dortmund could step up its bid to end Bayern’s reign of dominance in the Bundesliga when the two sides face in a top-of-the-table clash on Saturday.
Witsel has been central to his club’s domestic campaign having starred in every Bundesliga game this season, as well as being the player with the best passing accuracy in the league.
Overcoming injury and illness
His recent form comes off the back of a serious Achilles injury suffered at the start of the year, which required surgery and five months on the sidelines.
“I had two options,” Witsel says, “I just stay with my head down and I’m like: ‘What am I going to do? How long is it going to take?’
“Or you just take it in a positive way and you say: God preserved me for 16 years, it was my first big injury, so I couldn’t be mad. God protected me for so long.”
Witsel had experienced lows in his career before prior to the injury, notably when he received hate mail and death threats in the aftermath of a tackle that broke the leg of Marcin Wasilewski in 2009.
But the timing of this year’s injury also proved problematic.
“At the same time I had the injury, I got Covid,” says Witsel. “It was one week after my operation, so my body was weak.
“Then also my wife, kids, everybody got Covid. My mum at the same time has Covid and was in hospital for two weeks. It was a bad time, a hard time. But I kept thinking only in a positive way and that’s how I did my recovery.”
Having returned to Belgium for his surgery and rehab, Witsel’s recovery progressed faster than expected.
In January, his father had given him a “zero percent possibility” of playing in the European Championships, but Witsel defied those odds and starred in Belgium’s second game of the tournament against Denmark in June.
Michael Yormark — the president of sports agency Roc Nation, which represents Witsel — called it a “superhuman” recovery, one fueled by “mental toughness, commitment and dedication.”
For his own part, Witsel confesses that he didn’t expect to be playing so regularly for Dortmund after the injury. “But thanks to God, I feel good mentally,” he adds.
The focus now is on winning silverware.
“When you are in Dortmund, you want to win trophies and titles,” says Witsel.
“In the Bundesliga, it’s not easy because Bayern is a really tough opponent … but you never know, this season we will see. We have a new coach [Marco Rose] and a new way of playing, and we’re going to do everything.”
That’s true of him as a player, too: whether recovering from a serious injury or marshaling his team from midfield, Witsel never shies away from giving football his all.
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